In the Catholic Church, bishops are required by Canon Law to submit a letter of resignation to the Holy Father when they reach their 75th year.
Bishop Ronald Gainer, who has served our Diocese since 2014, submitted his letter of resignation to Pope Francis in concurrence with his 75th birthday on August 24. He’s still the shepherd of the Diocese of Harrisburg, though; the letter does not automatically result in immediate retirement.
The letter to the Holy Father does, however, set into motion a process that will eventually lead to the simultaneous retirement of Bishop Gainer and to the appointment of the next Bishop of Harrisburg.
Naturally, a significant amount of curiosity surrounds the process of the appointment of a new bishop, and what happens next for Bishop Gainer and the Diocese of Harrisburg. After all, the last time our Diocese witnessed the retirement of its bishop was in 1971, with that of Bishop George Leech.
Shedding light on the procedure and sharing insights on his ministry going forward, the election of a new bishop and the transition, Bishop Gainer sat down with Rachel Troche, host of the Diocese’s Candid Catholic Convos podcast, to talk about various elements of the process. Their full interview can be heard at www.hbgdiocese.org/communications/candid-catholic-convos-podcast.
Mandated by Canon Law
The requirement that a bishop submit his letter of resignation at age 75 is not a personal decision on a bishop’s part, but rather one that is defined by Canon Law.
In 1965, a document on the pastoral ministry of bishops issued from the Second Vatican Council requested that bishops offer their resignation if “the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason” resulted in their being “less capable of fulfilling their duties” (Christus Dominus, 21).
“That document on the ministry of bishops was the first time that it was suggested that bishops should retire,” Bishop Gainer said.
Prior to that, bishops typically died while in office, unless a major health issue prompted their request for retirement.
While the 1965 document encouraged bishops’ prudence in requesting retirement, it did not specify at what age it should take place. That change came a year later, when St. Paul VI issued an apostolic letter on the governing of the Holy Church. The letter implemented several decrees of the Second Vatican Council; regarding Christus Dominus, it specified submission of resignation should take place at age 75.
The requirement was added to Canon Law (Canon 401) in 1983.
Bishop Gainer submitted his letter to Pope Francis in conjunction with his 75th birthday.
“It puts the pope on notice that, when he chooses, he should begin a process to look for the next bishop, the 12th Bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg,” Bishop Gainer said.
“Right now, I’m simply in that holding pattern. Nothing changes in terms of my responsibilities and my vocation and the ministry that I perform as the Bishop of Harrisburg, until I receive notice from the Holy Father that he has chosen the next bishop,” he said.
A Guarded and Thorough Process
So when will Pope Francis appoint the next Bishop of Harrisburg?
“It’s indeterminate,” Bishop Gainer said.
“Some bishops’ resignations have been accepted within a few months, other times it’s a year, and some have even gone beyond two years after they wrote their letter offering their resignation,” he said. “There’s no way of telling how long the process will take. The process will begin when the pope decides to begin it, and it can be a lengthy one.”
The process of selecting a new bishop is done under what’s known as the Pontifical Secret; it cannot be discussed once it is underway, Bishop Gainer noted.
It will begin with a series of questionnaires. One, which Bishop Gainer and some others will receive, will focus on the strengths of the Diocese and areas that need attention and development.
“I’ll be looking at everything: the whole of ministry, the sacramental life, the faith life, financial issues – every aspect of Diocesan life,” he said.
He will also likely be asked to nominate up to three possible candidates to be considered as the Diocese’s next bishop.
In fact, a list of potential candidates already exists.
“Every three years, the bishops of our province – the Latin Rite Bishops of Pennsylvania – meet and submit a list of 10-12 names of priests of our various dioceses that we would consider and vote on as possible candidates to be considered for the episcopacy,” Bishop Gainer explained.
Questionnaires regarding those candidates will be distributed by the Apostolic Nunciature to a number of clergy, religious and laity who know those priests well and can give an assessment of them as a potential bishop. The information is then collected and submitted to the Dicastery for Bishops, the department of the Roman Curia that assists the Holy Father in selecting bishops.
Bishop Gainer recounted an example he gives students when they ask him why the pope would need assistance in appointing priests to the College of Bishops:
“If a bishop is needed in Argentina…Pope Francis, because of his experience as Bishop of Buenos Ares, would probably be able to name a priest there that he would like to be a bishop of a particular Diocese in that country or a surrounding country. He wouldn’t need a lot of help, most likely,” he said. “But, he has to name bishops in Australia, France, the United States, Canada – all around the world – and he doesn’t have familiarity.”
“The head of the Dicastery for Bishops assists the pope in the process. In the end, when a bishop is chosen, the pope is given dossiers of three candidates. In Canon Law, it’s called free election; the pope then freely chooses one of those three to be the next bishop,” he said. “In our case, he’ll be given three names with their backgrounds and information and he’ll choose one of them to be the next Bishop of Harrisburg.”
The man selected as bishop – either a priest or a bishop in another diocese – will receive a phone call from the Apostolic Nuncio, the pope’s representative here in the United States, informing him of the appointment. Some time thereafter, the nuncio will share the news with Bishop Gainer, and there will be discussion and plans to announce the appointment to the public.
If the man chosen is a priest, he will be ordained and installed as bishop during a solemn Mass within three months of the announcement. If he is already a bishop, the Mass of Installation will take place within two months.
“When a bishop is installed, the essence is that he is led during the Mass to sit on the cathedra, the Chair of the Bishop. It represents his office of teaching and his jurisdiction in the Diocese, so he is led by another bishop to that chair and he sits down. That’s when he takes possession of the Cathedral and of the Diocese,” Bishop Gainer said.
Continuing as Normal
While the Diocese awaits the Holy Father’s acceptance of Bishop Gainer’s retirement and his appointment of the 12th Bishop of Harrisburg, nothing changes in its day-to-day operation and ministries.
“We continue as normal until we find out who the next bishop will be and then we set a date either for his ordination and installation, or for his installation,” Bishop Gainer said.
Upon the announcement of the new bishop, Bishop Gainer’s resignation as Bishop of Harrisburg will be become official, and he will become the Diocese’s Apostolic Administrator at that time.
While he will no longer have the title of Bishop of Harrisburg when the appointment is made, he will still have “all the rights, duties and responsibilities to govern the Diocese until the new bishop sits on that Cathedra and takes on the full administration of the Diocese,” he said.
Bishop Gainer celebrated his 75th birthday without fanfare, and will have a small gathering with his immediate staff after returning from vacation on Labor Day.
He requested that those who wish to offer a gift for his birthday do so with a contribution to the Diocesan Seminary Education Fund, which assists with the annual $38,000 cost of education per seminarian.
“When people want to know what I would like, if anyone would like to make a gift to me in honor of my birthday, I would prefer that the gift be given to the Diocese for the education of our seminarians,” Bishop Gainer said. “That would be a big help to our local Church to have that financial support to pay the seminary bills for our seminarians.”
He concluded by asking for prayers as the Diocese prepares for the time of transition.
“I would ask everyone’s prayers for me, and also for our Diocese as we remotely begin to prepare for transition and the welcoming of a new Bishop of Harrisburg,” he said.
Listen to the full interview on Candid Catholic Convos at www.hbgdiocese.org/communications/candid-catholic-convos-podcast.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness